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In Search of Laurent Clerc

On July 4, 1957 my journey with Laurent Clerc began. This is the day that my father registered my birth name in an Ogdensburg Hospital. From this time my exploration of Laurent had taken me many places and connected me to many people. 


Since agreeing to resurrect the Laurent Clerc Stamp project many folks have asked me if I would be writing a book about my journey of discovery. Not being a writer I generally say that it is beyond me. However, what is not beyond me is chronicling my journey the best I can as it happens. If it is interesting to anyone then all the better. 


In this section are the general notes of my work on all things related to Laurent Clerc. I hope that someone enjoys it.

November 17, 2021 Wilton Library, Wilton, CT and "The Wilton Papers"


Friday, November 11, 2020 and Yale University in New Haven,  CT


November 18, 2022 Wilton Library, Wilton Historical Society and History & Cogswell Heritage House at ASD

Initial discussions about organizing a coming out of the Laurent Clerc "Wilton Papers" in 2023. The Phoenix Day School for the Deaf, beginning the discussions with the principle and staff about participating in the Art, History and Stamp Module  as part of their Deaf History curriculum.

January 2021 some exciting work was being done with The California School for the Deaf in Fremont (CSD) and with Joey Baer, Ed.S., the elementary school principle. Joey is a person with what appears to be unfettered creativity. He contacted me to suggest that we work on bringing our fledgling Art, History and Stamp module to CSD. The results were amazing. Joey designed a power point presentation to present to students, ran a successful Selfie of Support campaign that netted our most ever and used Laurent to highlight Deaf History. Joey continues to be an advocate for Laurent Clerc projects and assisting us with networking with other schools across the nation. Thank you so much Joey!

Today, like many days are filled with creative things coming from Emily over at  The Phoenix Day School for the DeafIt is one of my greatest pleasures.

Emily is a 5th grade teacher who appears to love her students, students and her school. She has been so much fun to share Laurent Clerc or Flat Laurent memes. She even arranged for the school to purchase its own Flat Laurent! I am regaled with memes, gifs and photos every week, each more lovely than the playful ones that proceeded them. She had made this stamp project truly enjoyable!

Laurent Clerc Holt’s FOLDA Travelogue-2003 

Dear FOLDA Members:

Before I review with you my experiences [...] and tour to Louhans and La Balme, I wanted to give you some background on my experience being named for my great, great, great, great grandfather, Laurent Clerc. 

On July 4th, 1957, my father, Stanley Pennock Holt (Laurent Clerc’s great, great, great grandson) with the support of my mother, Marjorie Morgan Holt, named me after Laurent Clerc. I was given Laurent Clerc’s name as the second son. My older brother, Timothy Matlack Holt was named after Timothy Matlack, an officer in the American Revolution who is known (or unknown) for being a prosecutor of the traitor Benedict Arnold and as a clerk to the President of the Continental Congress. He actually penned the Declaration of Independence, apparently because of his good penmanship but did not sign the document. Clearly my parents felt that Timothy Matlack had more impact in history and saved Laurent Clerc for their second male child. Somehow I think that they were mistaken. 

As a young child I remember little about any connection with Laurent Clerc. Apparently I attempted to write my name, Larry at that time, on the back cover of one the cherished copies of the “Diary of Laurent Clerc’s Journey to America'' that lay around my grandparent’s home in West Hartford, Connecticut. I also vaguely remember my grandfather, Guy Bryan Holt (Laurent Clerc’s great, great, grandson), talking to me about the importance of Laurent Clerc in Deaf history. Guy B. Holt was very interested in our family’s connection to Deaf history and was for a long time involved in the American School in West Hartford. He served as board member for twenty two years and president of that board for thirteen years ending in 1968. He has a boys residence named for him at the school. I am sure that he was influential in my parent's choice of my name and am sure it was his hope that Laurent Clerc’s name and accomplishments would not be forgotten in our family. 

As a young teenager I was acutely aware of the fact that I had been given a very strange and unusual name. I had not met another man named Laurent until my trip to La Balme after the [...]conference. I could not understand how to pronounce it and marveled why my parents named me after a man who had a name that sounded like the name of a girl. Of course my peers had a field day with it and were not going to let me forget that I had it. 

Then there was the beginning of my awareness that this name was connected to a person that was special and who had done something important. My awareness that my parents had chosen it, not just because it was a beautiful and unusual name, but had chosen it to make a connection to an important individual in our family history. I remember being involved in Laurent Clerc ceremonies throughout my teenage years. First there was the dedication of the Guy Bryan Holt Boys Residence at the American School. After my grandfather’s death in 1975, I remember attending the dedication of the Laurent Clerc Hall or dormitory at Gallaudet University in

Washington, DC. I remember vividly attending a production of the National Theatre of the Deaf while at Gallaudet. I remember being asked to stand up to applause when I had not really done anything. Sometime around this period I also remember a ceremony to unveil the Laurent Clerc portrait at the American school. But my mind was elsewhere in those days and I did not take the time to fully understand who Laurent Clerc was and why the Deaf community treated me with such kindness.

While on my trip[ to France, in September 2001 for a cycling tour] I had decided that I would make the attempt to visit the birth site or hometown of my great, great, great, great grandfather Laurent Clerc. For those of you that are not FOLDA members or aware of Deaf history, Laurent Clerc was a French deaf teacher that came to Hartford, Connecticut to start the first organized school for teaching the deaf. He brought with him French Sign Language that would become the foundations for American Sign Language. This opened up enlightenment to Deaf people and today he remained a much revered man.

So after various web searches I discovered that there was an Association Laurent Clerc located not far from his birth place, La Balmes-des-Grottes, near the city of Lyon, in the south of France. I fired off an email. 

What I received back was a true delight. What seemed to be the friendliest people in the known world responded to my request to visit with proclamations of friendship and excitement. They said to just come on down and they would set something up. So being one to follow instructions I booked a rental car and a room for the night close by and waited, excited but also a little apprehensive. I was not sure what I would find and remembered the strange uneasiness that I felt being the center of attention for having done really nothing. 

Then there was 9/11/2001. Intense in so many ways. I thought of not going but only for ever so brief a moment. The planes were not yet flying in the states. However I was going out of Montreal, Canada. I was determined that nothing would stop me and after 9/11 felt that I needed to follow my dreams and destiny regardless of the consequences. Of course this trip changed my life in so many ways. The tour was magnificent.[...] I began my journey into the Deaf culture and into my Deaf family. 

I drove out of Avignon, France, three hours north to La Balme and Laurent Clerc’s hometown, arriving before seven in the morning. I was way too early despite taking a wrong turn. Talk about a small town. Several dozen stone buildings organized in that all cool euro manner along narrow streets, a rotary at either end of the village and those platform speed bumps to launch the small rental rally car if you take them too fast. It was beautiful, asleep and all that I had imagined it would be. I have to say, not being a man of great reflection, that it also seemed to have some lingering powerful effect on me, this place of my namesake and my family. 


So I am wandering around this small community waiting for something to happen. I headed to the commune community center that contains the local town government. It turns out that they have in the window, a timetable display of Laurent Clerc’s immigration to America. Interesting side story. In the 1970’s Deaf tourists started to show up in town asking where Laurent Clerc’s birthplace is located. The mayor thinks Laurent who? Seems that the town had forgotten him after he made his way to Paris, at the age of 12, to attend the Saint Jacques School for Deaf Mutes. Laurent’s father was the notary or mayor of the town, keeping up a family tradition that apparently would span three hundred year. So the mayor begins to research this mystery man and with the help of the French government and the Association Laurent Clerc develops a walking tour and yet unopened museum to honor this great pioneer in the education of the Deaf in America. 

About the time I am wondering if I have the wrong day, for this town is shut up tight, a gentleman approaches me. He inquires whether I am Laurent Clerc Holt. He spoke a combination of French and with a flurry of sign language. Quickly he determines that I speak no French and do not sign but he has the largest smile and is so glad to see me. This is Marc, presently the President of the Association Laurent Clerc. We quickly worked out a system of communication through writing, while cumbersome, worked. The story of deaf and hearing communication through the ages. 

What followed nearly blew my mind. Slowly more and more members of the deaf community in the Lyon area began to arrive. The other important person was to be Michelle, a very petite French deaf teacher and the organizer of a day of events that would delight and overwhelm me. She was followed by an increasing number of smiling, quiet people of all ages who would watch me ever so intensely. 

Michelle was an organizer and organize she did. She had arranged a champagne reception in the community center for me. I was accompanied by a French English signing interpreter, a chemist from Lyon, who was supposed to make all this understandable. He was very nice and I was to discover very helpful to have around. During the reception of approximately fifty people I met with the present mayor and employee of the biomedical firm that owned the building that was Laurent’s birthplace. I got to meet the past mayor who began the town’s research on Laurent Clerc. I was asked to give a brief speech using my multi-talented interpreter. I told him that I was not sure that I would make sense but he said that I was not to worry and he would fix everything in the translation. This seemed to work. After the champagne toast we did some picture taking and handshaking and rounds of applause. Since deaf people often don’t clap but raise their hands and shake their fingers it took on a revival meeting feeling rather quickly.

We finished with a presentation of several personal items of Laurent Clerc which I had inherited from my grandmother, Helen Pennock Holt. The Association Laurent Clerc had no personal belongings from him and I wanted them to have something for their upcoming museum. They were of course very delighted.

Now I want to take a moment to tell you that about this time I am wondering just why fifty people would show up to see me give a lame greeting and stand around smiling. What I did not know at the time was how important Deaf history was to them and that I represented the flesh and blood of a man that was a role model to many and by immigrating to America had a profound effect on the Deaf community there.

Michelle had also organized a walking tour of the sites significant to Laurent Clerc. So we toured. Laurent with fifty people following him around town. We visited the family home, then his neighbors, where on a play date Laurent fell into a fire and obtained the scar and sign that forever identifies him, two fingers brushed across the right cheek. We climbed the hill above the town to the 12th century stone church where he was baptized. They still had the priest’s robes that were used in the ceremony in 1795. They asked if I wished to be alone to pray in silence but I just did a photo shoot. Next we went to visit the Place De Laurent Clerc, presently a gravel parking lot but in the future to be something more befitting this great man. At one point an elderly deaf man grabs me and tells a story, twice actually, about how I represented the return of his dead son, killed in the Second World War. The intensity of Laurent Clerc’s legacy was beginning to impact me greatly. Then it was on to a beautiful luncheon at the only restaurant in the village. What a good time. Good food, wine, conversation of sorts, pictures, hand shakes and slaps on the back. After lunch we made a visit to the proposed site of the Museum Laurent Clerc and to the Grotto or cave, it being the other thing that put La Balme on the tourist map. 

All incredible and intense experiences must overwhelm or come to an end. It was time to go and I will admit while I enjoyed the attention, I being somewhat overwhelmed was glad to head back to Avignon and Jocelyne. Still, not quite sure what had happened and what all the excitement was about I felt glad that I had made the effort to explore the Laurent Clerc legacy further. As the crowd petered out and I said my goodbyes , I headed down the road, exhausted. 

Fast forward to the present. I received an email from the Association Laurent Clerc reminding me of the upcoming opening of the Laurent Clerc Museum on July 6, 2023. Would I consider coming? I replied that I was so glad to hear from them but that I was unable to attend. [...]Soon after I received another email, from a complete stranger who would soon become a dear friend. It was from Alice Hagemeyer and an organization called FOLDA. She was so pleasant and said that she had been given the task to tempt me into attending the opening of the Laurent Clerc Museum. I responded that I was glad to hear from her but finances and time constraints, my upcoming wedding planning, prevented me from going. Alice responded with the offer to help with the finances. Quite surprised by her generosity, I reflected further on my past trip and how powerful an experience it was for me. The idea of continuing my journey into the life and history of Laurent Clerc began to intrigue me further. So I decided to clear my schedule and take up her offer.

The planning began in earnest with Alice and Fanny Corderoy du Tiers, international coordinator of the Laurent Clerc Museum and chair of the 5th conference of the Deaf History International.

I spent some time reading my copy of When The Mind Hears by Harlan Lane. For those of you not aware of this work it is the account of Laurent Clerc’s experiences written from his prospective. It amounts to a primer on his life and the Deaf signing communities' early struggle in Europe and American against the proponents of oral methods of educating the Deaf. It is a must read, especially for the less informed, mainly me. My father, Stanley, had given me a copy at its publication with a note outlining my genealogical connection to this great man. This crash course on Laurent Clerc might just prevent me from looking too clueless.


I was worrying for nothing of course. Upon my arrival I was greeted by Marc and Michelle, both attending the conference for the week before returning to La Balme to prepare for the opening of the museum. They embraced me and welcomed me in a way that reminded me that I was further accepted into my growing Deaf family. The most exciting moment of the day was when I was able to meet Alice, my friend and benefactor. I was very excited to finally meet her and begin to talk about her experiences as a Deaf woman and librarian. She had such a warm smile and I felt immediately comfortable with her. She also slowly began to introduce me to her friends. They were to become my pals for the week and during our tour of the countryside.

As the conference began, Fanny made introductions of all the members of the organizing committee that worked on DHI-5. At the end she announced that the conference would like to welcome an American representative of the Clerc family. Anxiety, here we go again. I looked at Alice with a pained expression but she reassured me that it would be alright. Completely unprepared to go up onto a brightly lit stage and speak I made my way forward. Clearly out of my depth with all the knowledgeable members of the Deaf community around me I attempted to say thank you to Alice and all those who made it possible for me to be there. I thanked everyone for the opportunity to attend. I can’t really remember what I said. I was so nervous. At first the interpreters could not follow at the speed I was talking and I had to begin again, compounding my fear. But I got through it and everyone seemed delighted by whatever I said. On the return to my seat Alice reassured me that I did not make a complete fool of myself. I thank her for that. It helped me be able to forge through the rest of my experiences that week.

As time progressed I came to understand many things about the Deaf that I did not know. I could not for the life of me understand why there were some many, about five, interpreters on stage signing at one time. I wondered why so many were needed for one language. Of course it was because there are many sign languages. I had thought that French Sign Language was essentially universal and was adopted wherever it was sent. I soon became aware of the diversity that is sign language around the world. Not knowing sign myself I was still intrigued by this, as I am attempting to learn French for my upcoming immigration to the Province of Quebec, Canada. Of course I had already experienced the warmth and friendship that is the Deaf community. But I also became more aware of the intense interest and pride in Deaf history among the participants of the conference. The presentations, especially those focusing on biographies of pioneers in Deaf education in all the countries around the world, fascinated me. They seemed to parallel the experience of Laurent Clerc and they seemed no less significant than he in their native countries then Laurent Clerc was for America. Though these stories I increasingly felt the importance of Laurent Clerc’s own sacrifices and work in helping to provide the tools for the enlightenment of a community previously denied by aggressive proponents of the oral methods. This struggle of the signing and the oral traditions seemed to take on the mood of a holy war of liberation. Harlan Lane’s book helped me to understand why this conference on Deaf history came into being and the importance of such gatherings to explore a community experience. Alice’s and others stories about their forced education in oral methods helped me to understand this struggle on a personal level. It was becoming clear for the first time for me who Laurent Clerc really was and what he was really about. Increasingly I was filled with a sense of pride for what he had done and the contribution he had made to so many. Eat cake Timothy Matlack and move over, Laurent Clerc rules.


As the conference progressed I settled into my role as ancestor and representative of the Laurent Clerc family. I increasingly became comfortable with the idea that I represented for this community a concrete link to Laurent Clerc, to some of his living flesh and blood. I was glad to do it, to be at all helpful to the spirit of the gathering and for a connection to the history of Laurent Clerc. At other times the uneasiness would return. Through all the pictures, handshakes and eventually even autographs it was hard to believe that I was somehow contributing something important. I felt dwarfed by the image and memory of such a great man and all he had accomplished. My image of myself as an unemployed burnt out social worker from the tiny state of Vermont kept punching through the reality of such an immense and intense gathering as this conference. But as time progressed the excitement and warmth I felt from everyone help me enjoy what I was able to contribute.

As the conference came to an end I began to get the feeling that I might be called upon to give another appearance on that brightly lit stage. Sure enough. I was honored to receive, all with all the real workers and organizers of the conference, a framed DHI-5 tile. It presently is displayed in the home of my father, who would have enjoyed but could not attend the ceremonies related to his great, great, great grandfather. I don’t have a clue what I said in thanks but I was very honored to be there and greatly enjoyed all the wonderful people that I met. This ceremony was completed with a tour of the Saint Jacques School of Deaf Mutes. This was a fantastic experience for me as it was the place of residence for Laurent Clerc for 22 years of his life. It was a very powerful experience for me personally to work around the grounds and buildings where my ancestor played and studied. I am not one for these types of experiences but when walking alone on the same stairs that he tread I felt that I could almost feel his presence. During my family therapy studies in school we were exposed to theorists that believed that family values and beliefs transcended the generations and impacted our choices in the present. I began to wonder if Laurent Clerc’s legacy was behind some of my grandfather’s, father‘s and my own choices to seek out the helping professions. Alice and I, along with several others managed to slip away to the American Library in Paris. Here Alice presented Deaf resources to the library, hoping that someday they would assist deaf persons to discover their heritage. It was a moving moment, especially for Alice and the mission of FOLDA.

The next morning brought us out early and onto the tour bus. It took approximately an hour and a half for us to reach Laurent Clerc’s hometown. Of course it had not changed in the two years that I was absent. With our emergence to daylight we were again on the road for a tour of the various Laurent Clerc sites, all the same ones I traversed two years prior. As this huge crowd moved around the village I could not help to feel that something very special was happening there that day. We moved onto the commune building that holds the museums for the commune, the Grottes and on the third floor the Laurent Clerc Museum. In the back courtyard a podium was arranged on the large wooden fire stairs. A natural pulpit to preach the accomplishments of Laurent Clerc. Included in the parade of organizers, dignitaries and benefactors they squeezed in the seventh generation family members. I had been better prepared this time, believing that they would want me to speak for the American Clerc family. I wasn’t sure what to say but had settled on first wishing that this event would be another way to connect the United States and France during recent difficult times. Next I wanted to talk about my grandfather, Laurent Clerc’s great, great grandson. It was he, Guy Bryan Holt, who represented the best of what Laurent Clerc brought to our family. My grandfather was, throughout his life, involved with the American School in West Hartford, Connecticut. It was he who made the most effort to keep our family’s connection with Laurent Clerc’s past alive. I could only really think about how he might have felt seeing a museum opened honoring a relative dear to him. Lastly I thanked the Association Laurent Clerc for their work on the museum and wished them great success. This was followed by the unveiling of a wooden bust of Laurent Clerc that is now located in the museum. I was grateful to be chosen to do the honors. It was another very special moment for me. Many more photographs with all sorts of people. I was even able to arrange a picture of myself and all the Laurent’s from the play. From the young Laurent through to the older one. A favorite of mine.

So that is Laurent’s adventure into Deaf history and into the life of his namesake. It will remain a powerful experience for me in the future. It made me realize that I am also responsible for keeping the memory of Laurent Clerc alive to support Laurent Clerc or great, great, great, great grandad Thank you. Laurent 

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